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Sherwood Equal Rights Historic District

Sherwood Equal Rights Historic District - Emily Howland House
Photo by Nancy L. Todd, courtesy of New York State Historic Preservation Office

The Sherwood Equal Rights Historic District in Scipio, New York is known for its association with numerous social reform movements. The district encompasses issues related to abolitionism, the Underground Railroad, Native American rights, women’s rights, and education. Named after Seth Sherwood (1768-1820), the hamlet of Sherwood, New York, was settled in 1794 at the corner of the 1795 Cayuga Indian Reservation. Several of the properties within the district were owned by freed slaves; others by prominent abolitionists and women’s rights advocates who sprang from the Quaker faith. Of the 28 properties in the Sherwood Equal Rights Historic district, at least 10 (36 percent) are associated with African Americans and five more are related to known European American abolitionists and supporters of the Underground Railroad. Unlike people in many communities, however, Sherwood citizens retained their commitment to equal rights reform after the Civil War. About 67 percent of the town citizens were active Quakers.

Sherwood Equal Rights Historic District - Howland Commercial Block
Photo by Nancy L. Todd, courtesy of New York State Historic Preservation Office

The Quaker philosophy undoubtedly helped shape the unique progressive outlook for Sherwood. Many Quakers settled in the Finger Lakes region of New York State during the late 18th century. Quaker faith holds that all men and women are equal in the sight of God. Practicing their faith led these Quakers to question the inequalities of their era. Before the Civil War, North Street Meeting of Friends (Orthodox) was the source of much of the reform energy in central Cayuga County. On January 20, 1835, Quakers from North Street Meeting signed the first antislavery petition sent to Congress from Cayuga County. In addition to European Americans, North Street Meeting had at least two African American members. One was the nephew of Paul Cuffe, the famous African American sea captain who established a colony in Sierra Leone. The other was Richard Gaskin, born in Virginia, who brought his family to Sherwood in 1864. People in the Sherwood area took an active part in the Underground Railroad, helping African Americans escape slavery, some went to Canada while others stayed in the area around Sherwood.
Nationally-known reformers who came to Sherwood included:

  • Abby Kelley (lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society)
  • Harriet K. Hunt (early woman doctor)
  • Mary and Emily Edmondson (who had escaped from slavery)
  • Joseph John Gurney (English Quaker reformer)
  • Sojourner Truth (born in slavery, who became a major abolitionist and woman’s rights lecturer)
  • Rev. Anna Howard Shaw
  • Susan B. Anthony (world famous woman suffragist)
  • probably Booker T. Washington
  • Harriet Tubman, an escaped African American slave who won world renown for her work aiding other escaped slaves to the Northern States
  • Slocum Howland, a leader in the American Anti-Slavery Society and a member of the Underground Railroad Network

Sherwood Equal Rights Historic District - Howland Cobbleston Store (Howland Stone Museum)
Photo by Nancy L. Todd, courtesy of New York State Historic Preservation Office

African Americans in Sherwood included Emily Howland, for her work in education and women's rights, Edward Pierce, who built the Pierce-Holley House (he had Indian, European and African ancestry). Later, Thomas and James Hart came as freedom seekers from Maryland and settled in the area, with James living in Sherwood. In 1843, Herman and Hannah Phillips and their four children arrived as freedom seekers from Maryland. They settled in Sherwood and purchased a house in 1856. Philip and Mary Gaskin, also Freedom Seekers, lived nearby. The John and Genette Baker family, born in New York State, perhaps originally in slavery, lived in Sherwood from an early date. African American students boarded with the Howland family while they attended school. Both Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth stayed with the Howland family in the 1870s.
The women’s rights movement was also strong in Sherwood. Four local institutions reflected women’s rights ideals: the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; the Sherwood Political Equality Club, the Sherwood Ramabai Circle, devoted to the Pandita Ramabai Mukti [Liberation] School for young women in Pune, India; and the Sherwood Select School, which, until its absorption into the public school system in 1926, was organized and operated entirely by women. The Sherwood Equal Rights Association, organized in 1891, was an extremely active and-lasting women’s suffrage group. At least three Sherwood citizens supported schools for freed people in the South during reconstruction, Slocum Howland with financial contributions and Emily Howland and Anna Searing as teachers.

The Sherwood Equal Rights Historic District consists of 29 properties in the commercial core of the hamlet. Encompassing nearly all of Sherwood, the district possesses a high degree of historic integrity. Most of the homes are one-to-two story buildings of heavy-timber construction built between the 1820s and 1910, although mid-to late-19th century dwellings predominate. In terms of style and architectural sophistication, most are vernacular interpretations of the prevailing modes of their respective periods. Restrained examples of the Federal, Greek Revival, Gothic, Italianate, and Stick Style are all represented in the district, as are eclectic blends of several generic Victorian tastes. The Sherwood Equal Rights Historic District was listed in the National register of Historic Places on February 29, 2008.

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